Jun 7, 2014
In terms of cinematic works that come closest to encapsulating alpha-Beat writer William S. Burroughs’ oftentimes discordant, formless, and innately anarchic literary style, you probably cannot do better than the short films of British auteur Antony Balch (Secrets of Sex aka Bizarre, Horror Hospital), who collaborated with the yank junky writer on a couple experimental shorts during the 1960s and was even originally supposed to direct a feature-length adaptation of Naked Lunch (1959) starring Mick Jagger, but rather unfortunately, fate had different plans. With his first major cinematic collaboration with Burroughs, Towers Open Fire (1964), Balch was the first person in the world to introduce the novelist’s ‘cut-up technique’ to cinema, so at least in that regard, this less than 10 minute long avant-garde short is a cinematically revolutionary work, if only a minor one that will probably baffle most cinephiles. Shot between 1961 and 1962 in Paris and Gibraltar, Towers Open Fire premiered at the London Pullman Cinema in 1966 alongside Tod Browning's Freaks (1932) of all films (actually, Balch, who was originally a film distributor, is the man responsible for getting the ban lifted off of Freaks in the UK). Although the short is a mostly incoherent work of cut-up metacinema set in a predictably Burroughs-esque dystopian world, it is mandatory viewing for fans of Burroughs, who not only stars in the film, but says some ironically ‘racist’ things, gives a very quick demonstration on how to do a ‘cut-up,’ wanders around while smoking fags as if he is cruising for young fags, shoots some junk, and becomes the victim of an orgasm attack, among other delightfully decadent things. Naturally, the short also features footage of avant-garde painter Brion Gysin’s dreamachine invention. Gysin, who introduced Burroughs to the cut-up technique (which was originally utilized by Dadaist artists), came up with the idea for a ‘drugless high’ of sorts via a stroboscopic flicker effect that creates visual stimuli, with the dreamachine ultimately being the invention he created to achieve this pseudo-psychedelic effect. Beginning with a seemingly unrelated image of director Antony Balch’s lifelong hero Bela Lugosi, Towers Open Fire is a short but sweet trip of the apocalyptic sort that demonstrates why the largely forgotten filmmaker would have probably made for a more apt director for adapting Naked Lunch than David Cronenberg.
After seeing a picture of Bela Lugosi looking typically eccentrically sinister, the viewer is treated to a delightful little monologue by William S. Burroughs, who sardonically states in his typically monotone fashion: “Kid—what are you doing over there with the niggers and the apes? Why don't you straighten out and act like a white man? After all, they're only human cattle, you know that yourself. I hate to see a bright young man fuck up and get off on the wrong track — sure it happens to all of us one time or another. Why the man who went on to invent Shitola was sitting right where you're sitting now twenty-five years ago when I was saying the same thing to him — Well, he straightened out same as you're going to straighten out. You can't deny your blood kid — You're white, white, white — And you can't walk out on life times change there's just no place to go.” Notably, Burrough’s little monologue was taken from his cut-up novel The Soft Machine (1961) and it reminded me why the writer's most racially-charged writing tends to be his most hilarious. The excerpt from The Soft Machine is juxtaposed with a headshot of Burroughs, who looks like a half-autistic WASP degenerate, which was more or less what the novelist was, but that is also what makes him so interesting, as a man who more or less embodied Spengler’s theory of decline (after all, Burroughs’ grandfather was a pioneer who invented the adding machine, yet Burroughs himself invented the ‘word virus’ and shot his wife in the head, among countless other things).
In the next scene, Burroughs appears as the head of a corporate board meeting and by the end of the film, all the board members will be vaporized into oblivion, as if the novelist infiltrated their little group solely so he could destroy them (of course, this is a rather typical Burroughs fantasy). Juxtaposing images of exotic masks that resemble something out of a Steven N. Arnold film (The Liberation of the Mannique Mechanique, Luminous Procuress), a guy masturbating in bed, as well as countless grimy film reel canisters, to the less than soothing sounds of Burroughs mumbling gibberish (apparently, these noisy sound clips were recorded on a cheap Grundig tape recorder), the short gives off a feeling of oppressive audio/visual overload, as if the viewer is being forced to endure the junky queer novelist's various neuroses. After demonstrating the cut-up technique via a newspaper, the film features a crude cut-up montage of Burrough’s walking around and spouting nonsense, as if he is a disgruntled old man who cannot think of anything practical to complain about. As demonstrated by a quick shot of a newspaper headline reading “Stock Exchange Suspend Dealings,” Towers Open Fire depicts a materialistic society on the brink of collapse and naturally Burroughs is quite excited by the prospect, as demonstrated by the fact that he begins waging a lone-wolf war via aesthetic terrorism (i.e. cut-up sound recordings). After a scene featuring Burroughs hanging out at a zoo and checking out some large birds, the novelist discusses the dreamachine while young wild boys get high off the flickering light. In between shots of spinning dreamachines, Burroughs shoots some junk into his arm, as it would not be a Burroughs flick without someone shoving a needle into their flesh. In one of the most climatic scenes of the film, Burroughs, who is in military fatigues (including a gas mask), shows up at a dilapidated old house and proceeds to shoot ping pong balls at old family photos, thus causing people to magically evaporate outside on the street. Indeed, in the end, civilization as we know it ends and everyone evaporates, except a Wild Boy and the Führer of the Wild Boys, Burroughs, who is featured in the final scene waving his ping-pong gun in a shockingly militant fashion, as if the writer somehow managed to develop a deep sense of testicular fortitude after wiping out humanity.
Featuring Moroccan music (which was apparently recorded by Brion Gysin), shameless Bela Lugosi fanboy worship, William S. Burroughs of all people telling the viewer how to be a white man, and a small storm of incoherent cut-up degeneracy, Towers Open Fire is certainly a curious little slice of celluloid insanity that barely gives any sort of hint regarding what kind of filmmaker Antony Balch would eventually evolve into (he is best known nowadays for his campy horror-comedy Horror Hospital (1973)). Balch and Burroughs would collaborate on a couple more shorts films, including Guerrilla Conditions (uncompleted), The Cut-Ups (1967), Bill and Tony aka Who’s Who (1972), as well as two posthumously released works, William Buys a Parrott (1963) and Ghosts at Number 9 (2005) aka Ghosts at Number 9 (paris), but I have to admit that Towers Open Fire is easily my favorite, as a work that, somewhat strangely, seems to have infinite replay value. Like the out-of-control celluloid monster of a mad cinematic scientist, the short ultimately demonstrated to me that the whole cut-up technique seems more effective in film as opposed to novel form. As someone who has personally attempted to endure some of Burroughs’ cut-up novels and was rather disappointed (to say the least!), Towers Open Fire proved to me that the technique is more than just a pretentious gimmick used by a junky with a confused opium-addled mind who lacks the mental coherence to write anything even remotely linear. In Balch’s short, the technique ultimately creates a sort of apocalyptic poetry that, if nothing else, would make for great recruitment material for prospective Wild Boys.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 10:49 PM
Soiled Sinema 2007 - 2013. All rights reserved. Best viewed in Firefox and Chrome.